Requeim for the Indians of Brazil – Paulo Becker

Paulo Becker*
Written especially for the magazine VOX XXI, Porto Alegre, RS, October of 2001.


In a novel that is neither long nor short, Antônio Torres narrates the process of the occupation of Brazil by Portuguese colonizers.  Or what could more aptly be described as the inglorious struggle of the Brazilian Indians for their land and liberty.

Despite the tragic theme, the narrator recounts the events of the first century of colonization with humor and fluency.  He focuses on the years immediately before and after 1557, the year of the death of Cunhambebe, the “querido cannibal” of the book’s title.   Cunhambebe, whose name literally means “tongue that moves slowly” (what we might call soft-spoken), was chief of the Tupinabás, a tribe allied with the French that vehemently fought the Portuguese colonizers.  A man of impressive physical strength and indisputable courage, Cunhambebe wrote his legend in blood. He waged unrelenting battle against his enemies, be they neighboring tribes involved in territorial disputes, or the Portuguese, labeled by the Indians as “perós” or ferocious, for trying to turn them into slaves.  In Torres’s opinion, Cunhambebe was the strongest and most feared of all Brazilian Indian chiefs.  Unequalled in the arts of war, he treated his enemies with unimaginable cruelty, and then devoured them.

But Cunhambebe isn’t the story’s only hero.  The chief Aimberê is held in the same high regards. He was responsible for uniting many tribal chiefs, including Cunhambebe, in the Tamois Confederation, whose objective was to resist the Portuguese invasion and free already imprisoned Indians.  The Tamois Confederation lasted for twelve years, until 1567, by which time all the member tribes had been annihilated by an army under the command of Mem de Sá, then Governor of Brazil.  However, during that time the confederates turned the lives of the Portuguese into a living hell, and succeeded in negotiating a temporary cease-fire, along with the freedom of many enslaved Indians, in exchange for the lives of two of their hostages, Manuel da Nóbrega and José de Anchieta.  At this point the narration reveals a less known side of Anchieta.   He not only appears as the author of poems and religious doctrines, and the tireless catechizer of Indians (who courageously went to negotiate with them and ended up their prisoner), but as their assassin as well.  When unable to subjugate the savages with words alone, Anchieta put into practice the theory of the Dominican Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, presented in 1550 at a meeting of the Trent Council in Valadolid, Spain, and stating that savages unwilling to submit themselves to their Portuguese colonizers should be exterminated in the name of justice.  It was on this premise that Anchieta founded his argument to convince Mem de Sá of the necessity to annihilate the Tamois, the tribe that he described as constituting “a wild and carnivorous nation, whose jowls are still full of the meat of the Portuguese”.  After the Portuguese had exterminated mass numbers of indigenous peoples Anchieta rejoiced and spoke of the battle, praising the action of the colonizers:  “Who could boast of the heroic gestures of the chief when faced with the soldiers in the immense killing!  One hundred and seventy villages burned, a thousand houses ruined by the devouring flames, fields and all theirs riches devastated, everywhere the mark of the sword’s blade!”

Torres’s zigzagging narrative intermixes the confrontations between the Indians and the Portuguese with the Portuguese battles against the Dutch and the French, both equally interested in conquering Brazilian territories and riches.  In these wars the Indians always found themselves attacked from both sides.  Those who knew how to choose the winning side (that of the Portuguese), such as Araribóia and later Martim Afonso, would receive honors and glory in the future.  Others, like Cunhambebe and Aimberê, allied themselves with the French, but without ceding the autonomy of the indigenous nations, and were defeated and forgotten in history’s official version.

As a consequence of their being forgotten, another hero emerges:  none other than the narrator.   Doubling as historian, the narrator either devours ancient historical documents and travel diaries, or wanders the streets of Rio searching for clues to its remote past in the city’s historic plantations and the collective memory of its people.  It is due to this narrator, who tells the other version of the story, as Walter Benjamin would have liked, that the Brazilian Indians emerge with their dignity.  Despite their defeat, they died fighting, as Cunhambebe thought it dignified to die, defending their land, values, and customs.  At the end of the novel it is the narrator who rises energetically against the accommodating position of today’s authorities, who have resolved to erase from their consciousness such past conflicts and weakened utopias with the absurd excuse that researching them would be a waste of time.  Faced with a declaration by a visiting authority from Lisbon that it is futile to argue the story, the narrator defiantly poses the question:  “A waste of time for who, white-face?” and adds:  “Give me a break, ó pá.”

Meu Querido Cannibal quickly takes the form of a classic.  Its retelling of the history of Brazilian colonization is intriguing and revealing, and its denunciations of the atrocities committed by colonizers against supposed savages remembers texts like “O Paraíso Destruido” by the monk Bartolomé de las Casas, and “As Veias Abertas da America Latina” by Eduardo Galeano. Torres masters the formal aspects as well, succeeding in giving the narrative an obsessive rhythm.  Without getting caught up in descriptions or interpretations, the narrator restricts himself to the presentation, in the form of flashbacks, of a few significant yet little known facts about the nation’s past. The action takes place through successive temporal dislocations, and is constantly confronted with the vicissitudes of contemporary Brazilian society as a referential contrast.  Finally, the language of the work is detached and irreverent, marking the distance of the narrator, who puts himself to the task of cannibalizing history when confronted by the pompous and ugly discourse of the official version.

From now on, Meu Querido Canibal will take its place alongside other highly respected works such as those of Euclides da Cunha, Mário de Andrade, Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, and Gilberto Freyre, as an obligatory reference for those who would like to reflect on the problematic identity of the Brazilian people.  This is no small accomplishment.

*Poet, essayist, and professor of Literature at UPF. Becker was member of the jury committee for the Passo Fundo Zaffari & Bourbon Award/ 2001, whose winners were Meu Querido Canibal, by Antônio Torres, and NUR na Escuridão, by Salim Miguel.

This review was originally written in Portuguese and translated into English by Paige Apgar Continentino.